A Chinese court was offered a better deal two years ago on an aircraft at the centre of a dispute that could have led to Richard O'Halloran's earlier release from China, it has emerged.
The Chinese authorities lifted a near three-year exit ban last week, permitting the businessman to return home to his family in Dublin after he agreed to make future payments from the Irish aircraft leasing company where he works from income on an aircraft leased to a Finnish airline.
Mr O'Halloran was reunited with his wife Tara and four children for the first time since February 2019 after landing back in Ireland on Saturday.
He said in a statement that it was “a day of great happiness and emotion”.
The Foxrock man was blocked from leaving China after getting caught up in a legal dispute involving the chairman and owner of his company CALS Ireland, who was convicted for raising millions of euro from Chinese investors used to purchase an Airbus aircraft in 2016.
The fundraising predated Mr O’Halloran’s employment in the company and he was never accused of any wrongdoing, but was still stopped from exiting China as the court used his exit ban to try to secure the return of the investor money.
Value of aircraft
One source said that, while stuck in Shanghai, Mr O'Halloran had negotiated an offer of about $56 million (€50 million) for the purchase of the aircraft before the Covid-19 pandemic struck two years ago.
If accepted by the Chinese court, it would have yielded more money than last week’s deal and could have shortened Mr O’Halloran’s detention in China.
The impact of the pandemic on air travel has since significantly reduced the value of aircraft and the CALS-leased plane is now worth considerably less.
As part of last week's deal with the Chinese court, Mr O'Halloran is staying on as executive director of CALS to ensure monthly payments of €90,000 from lease income are sent to China and that the plane itself is returned when the lease with Finn Air ends in 2026 and a loan to a German bank is repaid.
The source described the rejected offer two years ago as a “screw-up” by the Chinese and last week’s deal as a “wake-up moment” for the court as it acknowledged the commercial reality around the lease on the plane and that Mr O’Halloran was willing to do all he could to return the money to the Chinese investors.
In his statement, Mr O’Halloran said his wife, Tara, and children, Ben, Amber, Isabella and Scarlett, had “endured many dark days” but that they were “always a beacon of light and hope for me”.
“The hundreds of Messenger calls we had helped me to remain positive. Tara was an incredible tower of strength and kept the show on the road,” he said.
“I am home with them now and we are all looking forward to getting to know each other again and doing normal family things.”
He thanked a long list of people who had helped him, including Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney whom he said was "a key figure in reaching a solution". The Fine Gael Minister "invested huge effort over a long period but particularly in recent weeks, leading to a positive outcome".
He said a number of other people were "very instrumental in the background in assisting in arriving at a solution", including businessman Ulick McEvaddy who joined the board of CALS to try to secure his release, his CALS colleague Donal Martin and Denis O'Brien.
Mr O’Brien is said to have kept in regular contact with Mr O’Halloran during his time living in hotels and apartments in Shanghai and was helpful in contacts with the Chinese ambassador in Dublin.
Mr Coveney told RTÉ on Sunday that Mr O'Halloran's return was a "victory for diplomacy".
He defended his non-adversarial approach in dealing with the Chinese, saying: “Protesting doesn’t always get the best outcomes.”
Peadar Tóibín TD, leader of Aontú, described the Government’s approach as “muted” and “soft”. He criticised Mr Coveney for thanking the Chinese on Mr O’Halloran’s release “for what was an outrageous occurrence for the last three years”.